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Your Ph.D. Is A Passport, Not a Roadmap

Insights from the recent Innovative Careers for Ph.D.s workshop

Nancy Tao Go speaks at the Innovative Careers for Ph.D.s workshop.
Nancy Tao Go speaks at the Innovative Careers for Ph.D.s workshop. Among her advice: Network like a honey badger.
By John Zhu

There is no doubt in Jacqueline Olich’s mind that her Ph.D. was crucial to landing a job at RTI International, which has about 900 Ph.D.s in its 5,000-strong workforce.

But just as important, she said, was a financial accounting course she squeezed into her schedule while working in administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jacqueline Olich and Sharlini Sankaran
Jacqueline Olich (left) and Sharlini Sankaran
discuss Olich's professional journey during
the first session of the workshop.

The course pulled her well outside her comfort zone—her Ph.D. was in Russian and Eastern European history—but she found that refreshing. More importantly, she is convinced that the course was critical when she applied for her current job as senior director for university collaborations at RTI International.

“In my first phone screening with the chief operating officer of RTI International, one of the first things he said was, ‘A historian who took financial accounting—tell me about that,’ ” Olich said at the Innovative Careers for Ph.D.s workshop at Duke on November 7.

Olich’s professional journey was one of many shared with Ph.D. students and postdocs at the event. The workshop featured 15 speakers from a variety of disciplines, offering insights on the diverse spectrum of fulfilling careers for Ph.D.s and how to prepare for them. It was hosted by the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E) and cosponsored by The Graduate School, the Office of Postdoctoral Services, the Duke Career Center, and the Office of Biomedical Graduate Education.

“At I&E, we talk a lot about thinking like an innovator and an entrepreneur, not being afraid to take a risk and step out of your comfort zone,” said Sharlini Sankaran, director of translational programming at Duke I&E, which organized the Innovative Careers workshop. “Stepping out of the prescribed tenure-track path requires taking a risk. You’re going to have to learn how to pivot.”

Nearly 75 percent of Duke Ph.D. graduates since 2004 are in careers outside the tenure track (explore the data). Professional development programming like the Innovative Careers workshop is becoming an increasingly important component of graduate education at Duke, as The Graduate School and other offices have ramped up resources in recent years to help students prepare for a broad range of careers.

Here are a few of the themes from the discussions at the event:

You Are the 1 Percent

Melissa Bostrom speaking to students
Lack of understanding about the Ph.D. fuels
stereotypes about Ph.D. holders, said Melissa
Bostrom, assistant dean at The Graduate School.

Almost 99 percent of American adults don’t have a Ph.D., said Melissa Bostrom, assistant dean for graduate student professional development at The Graduate School. That means they probably don’t fully understand what earning a Ph.D. entails or what a Ph.D. graduate has to offer.

That lack of understanding can fuel stereotypes about job candidates with Ph.D.s. Nancy Tao Go, a 2000 Trinity graduate who has managed brands for Wayfair and Procter and Gamble, touched on some of those perceptions during her talk.

“No one thinks you're not smart,” Go said, “but I do think a lot of Ph.D.s may come in and you don’t actually know if they’re collaborative, if they can move in a more structured environment. You don’t know if they can move at the speed that’s required at a business. You need stories against those things.”

Know What You Know, Learn What You Don’t

Audrey Chang speaking during the STEM panel
Audrey Chang (right) and other panelists noted
that employers often list more qualifications
on job descriptions than what they are actually
looking for.

One way Ph.D. holders can combat those stereotypes, Bostrom said, is to recognize and articulate the skills they possess that can be transferred to careers outside academia—skills that are often buried in academic culture.

“When you compile a CV, you compile your accomplishments, but we don’t pay any attention to the skills that it took to build those achievements,” said Bostrom, who led an exercise to unearth some of those skills.

A number of speakers also strongly encouraged seeking out ways to supplement your Ph.D. skills. For instance, Heidi Scott Giusto (Ph.D.’12 History), who participated in a panel focusing on the social sciences, suggested formal project-management training, even if just through short workshops. Fellow panelist John Hardin, meanwhile, noted the diverse experiences he gained through serving on boards for entities large and small.

No matter how robust your skillset, there will be times when it’s not an exact match for a job, but some speakers advised attendees to apply anyway if the opportunity appeals to you, noting that in many sectors, employers often hire candidates who aren’t exact matches.

“I’ve personally written those ridiculous job descriptions where there is one unicorn out there in the world who can do all 27 things I’m listing,” STEM panelist Audrey Chang (PhD ’09 Biology) said. “Most of the time, I’m looking for 15.”

Network Like A Honey Badger

Arts/humanities panel
Aaron Dinin (left) suggested making your initial
email to someone short but personal, with a
suggested date and time to meet.

“If you’re going to network, attack it like a honey badger,” Go said. “When you network, be very specific about what you want. You have to be aggressive in your approaches and you have to be direct with your ask.”

Aaron Dinin, a 2005 Trinity graduate and an arts/humanities panelist, recommended keeping emails personal but short (four sentences or less), with a simple ask to meet and a suggested date and time.

“You just want to get them to meet with you; you can sell yourself in person,” Dinin said.

Another arts/humanities panelist, Elise Mueller, added, “I hate it when people write me emails that say, ‘Let’s get together sometime.’ I love to get together sometime, but WHEN?! WHY?!”

Free Your Mind

Social sciences panel
During the social sciences panel, Heidi Scott
Giusto (center) debunked the notion that a
career outside academia would not be
intellectually stimulating.

A popular topic was the need to maintain perspective—about your path, your degree, and your identity—while navigating your career.

Several speakers tackled common academic tropes about the world outside academia, such as worries about intellectual fulfillment.

“That whole framing of ‘Is it possible to be intellectually stimulated outside the ivory tower?’ is deeply problematic for the majority of the Ph.D.s, who are in fact going to work outside the ivory tower,” said Giusto, who founded a firm that, among its other services, helps clients edit job applications.

“If you are wondering if you can be intellectually stimulated outside of academia or if there are other intellectual people, let’s move on from that. The answer is yes.”

Then there’s the stigma about changing career paths.

“Don’t be afraid to be flexible and pivot,” Sankaran said. “That’s not a failure. It’s being entrepreneurial.”

Sankaran recounted her adviser’s prescient statement that her Ph.D. was a passport that would open doors she didn’t know existed, and Olich pushed that metaphor further.

“I think it is important that you think about it in terms of a passport instead of a roadmap,” Olich said.

Olich also mentioned that when she learned about her current job, her first thought was, “They’re not going to hire an historian.”

“But then I thought, ‘Why is that my lead? Why is that the whole identifier I use for myself?’ I have so many more identities. I’m an entrepreneur; I have so much more going on. When I let go of that mindset and was more open, it really helped.”

Also See


Photos from the Workshop


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